It’s not often that an auditor with an MBA from the U.S. changes career paths to become a Montessori teacher.
It’s even less likely that they would start a preschool in India with the sole purpose of reaching out to underprivileged children.
But, then again, Saraswathi Padmanabhan, is not one of those you meet often. Her unique passion and plain, old-fashioned obedience to God are startling in today’s “me first” world.
Saraswathi’s many accomplishments and talents come packaged in an unassuming personality. She has absolutely no airs about her.
You’ll have to dig around to discover that she has a degree from the prestigious BITS Pilani. Or that she has an advanced degree in accounting from California. Or that she worked in Silicon Valley for close to four years.
But while all of that is impressive, what is most amazing is that she and her husband Shyamal, a software engineer, said goodbye to the American Dream and committed to living out God’s vision for them in India.
At the heart of that vision was children.
“Even from when I was a teenager, I knew I would adopt kids,” says Saraswathi. “In fact, before we got married that was one of the conditions I gave Shyamal,” she laughs.
First, they adopted their son, Joshua. Three years later, they became a family of five, adopting two baby girls, Neha and Riya, just seven months apart in age.
Not long after their move to Bangalore, Saraswathi noticed that in the shadows of corporate highrises families huddled together under makeshift blue tarps. They were India’s construction workers. While they had literally built the city, they had no place to call home. Saraswathi’s heart broke for the children of these labourers who were often left unsupervised, falling prey to abuse or accidents.
“They would roam the streets or sit in construction sites and have nothing to do all day,” she recollects.
On weekends, she would walk down to the blue tarp settlements with food. That act of kindness would have ticked off the “charity” box for most people. But not for Saraswathi. Handouts were great, but she was called to do more.
“My vision was to provide a safe place for those children,” she says. “The big shift happened when we had our own children. We knew we had to do something about the neglect. We had to provide those precious kids the opportunity to be protected, to have a good life.”
She and Shyamal knew that God was prompting them to start a preschool for the children of the construction workers.
Armed with that motivation, Saraswathi shelved her Excel spreadsheets and decided to study Montessori education.
She wasted no time in getting her dream going. Just two days after she wrapped up her Montessori course, she opened the doors of Diya Ghar, a Montessori preschool for children of construction workers.
There was no big board meetings, no formal vision statement, no five-year business model. In fact, to start with, there weren’t even children. But there was faith.
Saraswathi rented a house in an area close to where she had seen migrant worker settlements. She gradually won the trust of the parents, convincing them that she would personally take care of their children.
The school started with five students.
Saraswathi would pick up the children from their homes, bring them back to Diya Ghar and start their day with a good breakfast. She had little uniforms made for the kids. Bright red t-shirts and tiny black pants.
She remembers one of her first students Swetha, a four-year-old who bore the incredible responsibility of supervising her two siblings. Swetha would carry her baby sister on her hip all day long. Her little brother would play near her, next to piles of bricks and cement.
But all that changed when Swetha and her brother became Diya Ghar’s first students. They began getting two hot meals a day. They had the opportunity to learn letters and numbers and rhymes. They had the chance to play on the bright yellow slide set in the front entrance of the school.
They had the chance to hear that God loves them.
By the end of the second month, the school had gone from 5 kids to 20.
Less than two years later, Saraswathi is poised to open Diya Ghar to 60 children in a new school facility. Yes, it’s a big, bold venture. She has no idea how the money will come in. Or how she will manage to arrange transport for them, feed them two meals a day, teach using relatively expensive Montessori materials and employ more teachers to invest in the children.
But she trusts an unknown future to a known God.
“It’s always been close to my heart that God came to give us life, a life of abundance. We should be enjoying life. I want these children to have the joy of education,” she says.
In every interaction with every child, Saraswathi shares that effervescent, God-given joy.
You may not be able to guess at her qualifications right away. But there’s no ambivalence about the fact that she loves each child who walks into Diya Ghar. There is absolutely no doubt that the eyes of each child shine with the joy of learning and the freedom of just being kids.